The intriguing proposition posed by this ostensibly historical narrative is that the past might have a future. Unlike the many books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Beeching report, this one by David Spaven, which will appear before the 60th next year, looks to the future as well as to the past.
In Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines the author forensically dissects the case presented for the closure of ten of the roads – roads which he says should never have been closed and all of which are now fondly remembered but alas few used from our heritage.
However, while expertly laying out the flawed arguments that sealed their fate, Spaven also lays out everyone’s perspectives in the current era of rail reopenings.
It is the author who effectively widens the net after his detailed timeline of the Borders Railway revival in his book Waverley Route, with the rebuilding of another line, at Levenmouth in Fife, now also underway. As Spaven thinks in the last chapter of his new book: “Could this be only the first reopening of a number of branches presented in this book? »
Despite the Covid pandemic, today’s optimism about the long-term future of the railways stands in stark contrast to the dark days of the late 1960s that Spaven describes, relating that a fellow railroad worker: “Why are you joining the railroad, son? The railroads are finished.
He acknowledges the strength of the dominant culture in which it was thought that cheap, sustainable gasoline would inevitably lead to the decline of rail travel. But he concludes that closing such a large number of routes was unnecessary because alternatives, such as reducing them to cut costs and improve their viability, were not considered.
He describes the Dunblane-Callander line as ‘the most egregious case of a missed opportunity to transform finances’ with measures such as cutting station staff and switching from steam to diesel.
The potential for reopening gives a tantalizing new perspective to these routes, brought evocatively to life in old photographs and maps in the book with stations with such wonderful names as Highlandman and Pittenzie, on the Gleneagles-Crieff line. However, Spaven is cautious about what is feasible, and in many cases advocates lower-cost streetcar trains, which can run on both rails and streets, than traditional rail.
He lists the Aberdeen-Peterhead line among the “strongest prospects”, perhaps initially towards Ellon, but cautions against high cost estimates. Other possibilities are reopenings in St Andrews, Penicuik, Banchory and Kilmacolm. Re-opening the Border Railway against overwhelming odds is an important step of what is possible. Spaven’s book is a marker towards even more ambitious railway renaissances to be achieved.
Scotland’s Lost Branches – Where Beeching Wrong, by David Spaven, Birlinn, £30
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